Tess of the d'Ubervilles - Talbothay and Tess's Struggle
In Tess of the d'Ubervilles, Tess is spiritually homeless. She wanders from place to place, doomed by her guilt to suffer personal ruin. Most of her temporary domiciles are backdrops for unhappiness and uncertainty, but her time at Talbothay's Dairy is ostensibly a period of bliss. What purpose does this segment of the text - which on the surface seems so hopeful - serve? When she begins to work for the dairy and is wooed by Angel Clare, Tess is pulled asunder by two competing forces: nature and society. The happiness and innocent sexual blush she discovers at the Edenic Talbothay solidifies Tess's shift toward natural impulses. These impulses are strong enough to temporarily subdue Tess's crippling shame, and thus establish the text's central moral conflict.
The Talbothay interlude allows Tess to put off making the final plunge into marriage for as long as possible. In a literary limbo, Tess can enjoy her physical awakening without the stain of sin that her previous consummation with Alec had imposed. Were it up to Tess, she would remain in this state of neo-virginity forever, for in it she is anonymous. She is not given the opportunity to live in this state for very long, of course. Angel's ambitions - and these are grand in a conventional sense, despite his misleading antipathy toward social climbing - compel him to make Tess promise to marry him, preparing in her a channel for natural will that allows her to set aside fear of Angel's rejection should he find out about her past. While she at first resists his advances and resigns herself to living without him, she is ultimately vulnerable to desire. We watch nature subsume Tess's initial acceptance of her ostracism; the power of Angel's passion erodes her guilt just enough for hope to seep in and wash away her resolve.
Tess's erosion is not sudden; Hardy prepares us for the transformation from the very beginning of the novel. He shows nature's dominance over Tess (and by extension, over us all) by establishing paganism as a symbol of man's ties to Nature, starting with the May Day dance where Angel first spurns Tess. The narrator explains, "The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain...only in a metamorphosed or disguised form" (39). "Old customs" hearken back to pre-Christian times where rituals revolved around harvests and seasons, not man-made constructs...